On the set of Roland Emmerich's 'Anonymous'

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Only the director of ‘Independence Day’ could treat the life of Shakespeare with the same abandon with which he blows up entire cities on screen. Mark Salisbury meets Roland Emmerich on the set of his new film, ‘Anonymous’

Roland Emmerich is best known for blowing stuff up in spectacular ways. From ‘Independence Day’ to ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ to, most recently, ‘2012’, the 54-year-old, Stuttgart-born director has indulged his passion for Hollywood disaster movies by leaving no iconic building or landmark standing in his pursuit of a CGI-enhanced money shot. And yet, for his latest, ‘Anonymous’, currently shooting at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin – where Fritz Lang directed ‘Metropolis’  – the only thing Emmerich is exploding is the myth of William Shakespeare.

While the Shakespeare authorship question – did the Bard really write the 38 plays and more than 150 sonnets attributed to him? – has long been a contentious topic, ‘Anonymous’ isn’t a literary mystery. ‘This film is not about who wrote the plays,’ insists writer John Orloff (‘A Mighty Heart’) who originally penned the script in 1998 and has been developing it with Emmerich for the last nine years. ‘It’s a drama. It’s about art and politics, and it’s about the pen being mightier than the sword.’ Even so, Orloff’s script borrows the theory that Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), Earl of Oxford and a member of Elizabeth I’s Court, was the author, with Shakespeare presented as an actor who, according to Rafe Spall who plays him, ‘wins the lottery, really’.

Emmerich confesses to knowing little about Elizabethan England or the authorship question when he read Orloff’s screenplay, then entitled ‘Soul of the Age’, which, its writer says, was much more about ‘art and censorship and being a writer’. But after several years’ research, Emmerich was steeped in all the various theories and keen to integrate the period’s political intrigue, as well as some salacious speculation. ‘At the beginning it was a little bit too close to “Amadeus” for me, about genius and jealousy,’ explains Emmerich during lunch. ‘We talked a lot and discovered this movie could be about the most important thing at that time – who will succeed Elizabeth? There were a lot of provocative ideas, which I liked. I said, “Look, if we provoke, let’s provoke all the way.”’

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And so ‘Anonymous’ posits the idea that Oxford was not only the author known as William Shakespeare but the illegitimate son of Elizabeth. Moreover, the pair had an incestuous relationship that produced a son, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel). ‘When Shakespeare wrote “Henry V”, he made things up and we’re making things up too,’ says Emmerich.  Orloff was, at first, taken aback by his director’s suggestion, though admits it makes for great drama. ‘I have done a lot of non-fiction-based movies and there is a point where you have to go with the emotional truth, not the literal truth, because the drama is the primary concern.’

Is Emmerich expecting any adverse reaction from the British media? ‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘I’m looking forward to it. It’s quite interesting how emotional people get when it comes to this subject. What we’re doing in this movie is very controversial.’
There’s no doubt ‘Anonymous’ marks a change of pace for Emmerich. But after earning many millions of dollars for Sony – who are backing this to the tune of $30 million – he’s earned the right to direct something different. Emmerich insists he’s making the movie he wants, without compromise, and so there are no Americans playing English in his cast, which features such venerable actors as Derek Jacobi, David Thewlis and Mark Rylance, as well as mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as Elizabeth at different ages.

Nevertheless, ‘Anonymous’ promises to be a period movie unlike any other, with Emmerich bringing a blockbuster visual approach to Elizabethan London. Having decided not to film in England due to a lack of period locations, Emmerich has called on his experience with effects to bring about his vision, which includes swirling ‘helicopter shots’ over a CGI London, and filming his actors mainly on green-screen sets and adding entire sets or partial backgrounds in post. Not everything is digital: production designer Sebastian Krawinkel (‘Inglourious Basterds’) has constructed a full-size replica of the Rose Theatre which will also serve as the Globe Theatre. ‘I want to see this town, I want to see wide shots, I don’t only want to shoot what’s there because nothing is,’ says Emmerich. ‘I approach it like my other movies where nothing is there: how can we create it?’

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One scene Emmerich is proud of is a helicopter shot of Elizabeth’s funeral procession as it travels along a frozen River Thames which, judging by the early images shown to Time Out, looks impressive, even if it’s not historically accurate. ‘It was born out of the fact that at one point in the story everything becomes really ice cold emotionally,’ he explains. ‘At one point I had this idea, why don’t we from a certain point on have everything frozen and snowy, and the funeral was part of that sequence. We said, “Why do we have to be historically accurate in something like that?” because it conveys what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s this frozen feeling, a person has lost everything.’

‘Anonymous’ opens next year.

Author: Mark Salisbury



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